Dungeons 2 [official site] is a strategy-management game which borrows heavily from Dungeon Keeper - to whit, you're an evil overlord building a vast underground lair then training up a bestial army within it. After a series of disappointments, might this be the much-needed heir to Bullfrog's classic? It's out tomorrow, and here's what I think.
There's a room type in Dungeons 2 called The Tinkerer's Cave. I don't know if this is a deliberate statement of intent, but a tinkerer's cave is how I always saw Dungeon Keeper. It wasn't a manic strategy game and it wasn't about balancing the books, even though both those aspects were very much a part of it. It was a tinkerer's cave, a big underground space to muck around in, to carve into shapes which pleased me and to fight minor fires in with a mixture of ingenuity and panic. That's what I've missed in the long years since Dungeon Keeper 2. And that's what, against many odds, Dungeons 2 has.
A few years back, I got excited. It doesn't happen often. Dungeons, it seemed, was to be a spiritual sequel to Dungeon Keeper, one of the games I hold closest to the withered gourd I call a heart. These days, there's a spiritual sequel to or unofficial remake of almost anything you care to mention, including Dungeon Keeper several times over, but back then Dungeons seemed like the first and only opportunity to revisit Bullfrog's peerless strategy-management game of subterranean tinkering and warfare. I was excited. In vain. Early promise became irritating and confused practice, though Dungeons did at least head admirably off in its own direction rather than slavishly ape someone else's work. Flash forwards to 2015 and we've just had War For The Overworld, which on paper replicates Dungeon Keeper 2 almost exactly (as well as throwing in additions of its own) but nonetheless came up short on capturing the series' spirit. It didn't scratch my itch, but surprisingly, Dungeons 2 does, despite in many ways being a whole lot less like Dungeon Keeper.
It does this because I can play it messily. While it keeps me on my toes, it's never hard in a way which requires precision to beat - I can hurl a load of monsters at the problem then get back to building and researching, safe in the knowledge that despite all the sounds of screaming in the distance, it's probably not a problem, probably. By contrast, War For The Overworld targeted a twitchier, more skilled, multiplayer-minded crowd who were more interested in precision battle than construction and tinkering. That's fine, I'm not going to spend a write-up of another game haranguing WFTO for having different priorities, but personally speaking I'm mightily relieved to have something which shoots for the pacing of 'my' Dungeon Keeper.
Dungeons 2's reasonably tall tech tree means there's always something else to build or upgrade, and it's consciously just not quite generous enough with the amount of gold available to let you simply steamroller through. Almost every room and every unit in it is also appreciably different to DK, rather than just a reskin, so while I already know the basic ropes I feel like I'm then learning new things rather than just going on muscle memory.
Dungeons 2 goes to very different places structurally from DK and WFTO alike. Very ambitiously, there are two different games running simultaneously here. One is the isometric construction and management of an evil lair and its monstrous denizens, who cannot be directly controlled and will rebel if their needs are not met, and the other is a simplified Warcraft III-esque real-time strategy game with direct unit control and a heavy focus on lampooning Blizzard's fantasy world. You even get two different mini-maps at once, one for the underworld and one for the overworld.
I worried initially that this was Dungeons 2 biting off far more than it could chew, but other than much of the overworld/RTS aspect involving too much slow schlepping around a place filled with artificial barriers, it gets away with it. What Dungeon Keeper always lacked was this sense that you raised an army of darkness then razed the happy, pastoral land above with it - the latter essentially happened off-camera. The primarily subterranean War For The Overworld, meanwhile, didn't quite live up to its title (which was itself borrowed from the DK3 that never was).
It's quite a treat both to have your creatures go smash up a cutsey Warcraftian town and to get to take temporary control of them and their powers in a way that's far more practical than DK's atmospheric but gimmicky Possession spell. It can become bothersome to slowly ping creatures back and further between underground and overground, and high in-game costs and unit caps (upgradeable) prevented me from effectively having one home team and one away team, but it's both a different sort of strategy and a better finale than simply trekking over to a rival dungeon and twatting a big gem until the voiceover says you've won. You also get to beat up a unicorn in a sort of boss fight at one point, which is hard to object to.
The monsters, which incline more towards comic takes on Warcraft and Warhammer greenskins than the demonic menagerie of Dungeon Keeper, are reasonably charismatic too. They have enough silly animations that I had a sense of who they were, silhouettes with at-a-glance familiarity and with this a certain sadness if they perished, which was lacking in WFTO's homogeneously spiky and more statistic-focused denizens. They've got distinctive roles and upgrades too, which means they're more imaginative than straight-up analogues for DK units, and that the option for more tactics and consideration in a fight is there if you do want it. Most of all, it's colourful and silly, achieving its intended aim of playing as the bad guy through actions - unicorn-slaying, village-razing, Eddard Stark-executing - rather than having to look all grimdark.
There's perhaps a little too much waiting around and a couple too many things which need researching, which needlessly delays getting out there and creating hell, but again, this is a game which is happy to let you fudge things to some degree. It's more tinkering than tactics, which is fine by me.
There's also a side-campaign starring some demons, which is more on the RTS side of things, and a few gentle takes on MOBAs in there too, but while the variety is admirable this stuff felt like a bit of a distraction from the dungeoneering I really wanted to be getting on with. As does the incessant chatter of the narrator, who you'll realise after a couple of hours of wondering where you've heard him before is the guy from The Stanley Parable.
While he brings the same level of Radio 4-toned sardonic enthusiasm, and in the earlier stages of the game there's a nice line in Stanley-style commentary-as-you-play, increasingly it all devolves into a mess of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones references. Simply saying something's name in a sarcastic voice does not satire make, and while it never goes all the way into objectionable, the steady stream of look-this-is-a-bit-like-that-other-franchise prattle does become highly irritating.
There are also digs at other games, including EA's notorious free to play Dungeon Keeper and Double Fine's notoriously unfinished Spacebase DF-9, as well as references to the allegations which motivated a certain online harassment campaign. Dungeons 2 is never outright venomous, and clearly means to be playful more than anything, but there are times when it just seems pointlessly snide just for the sake of filling a quiet moment.
This stuff is also going to date the game horribly, which is a crying shame given it's otherwise the Dungeon Keeper-like I'm most likely to return to in the years to come. Though I dearly wish it would calm down, and it's too messy to be as classic as its forefather, Dungeons 2 is the tinkerer's cave I've been waiting for.
Dungeons 2 is released tomorrow.